Part 1: How Herskovitz and Zwick Perfected the Ordinary Family Drama Before Showing Us Beauty
How many dramas have there ever been about family life? I don’t mean a family of cops or criminals but a family of normal people going through the struggles of normal life? Even in the era of Peak TV, these series have been few and far between. A lot of them have been on some variation of what is now Freeform, series like The Secret Life of the American Teenager and The Fosters, and there’s a pretty good argument that Shameless gave a far more accurate portrayal of the American family, warts and all.
But if you know the history of television, it might not come as a shock to learn that almost all of the great television dramas about family — certainly on network TV over the past thirty years — can be linked to two men: Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. For the better part of fifteen years, they produced some of the most distinctive series on TV, which is remarkable because not one of them was a procedural or a comedy. To explain the one that is my personal favorite, you have to go through their repertoire.
In 1987, a series unlike anything that had ever aired on network television debuted on ABC. It wasn’t radical in format the way Moonlighting had been earlier or challenged the boundaries of what TV could do like Twin Peaks would. No what made it difference was that it was a drama that didn’t have cops or lawyers or doctors at its center. The series was called thirty-something.
For a show that seemed to celebrate so much in the life of the typical 1980s family, it took a lot of flak at its premiere and throughout its run. Critics mocked it with phrases like ‘yuppie porn’ or ‘self-promoting’ perhaps because it was a series that hadn’t been seen on TV before. (I even remember an episode of Tiny Toons satirizing it, which just shows how much it become part of the Zeitgeist.) But having watched the series on DVD decades after the fact, you really can’t deny that thirtysomething was one of the more remarkable achievements in television history, simply by the way it took a look at the lifestyle of the upwardly mobile completely normally. It also had one of the greatest casts of actors who would dominate the medium for decades to come: Ken Olin, Mel Harris, Timothy Busfield, Melanie Mayron, Patricia Wettig and Patricia Kalember. (Wettig and Olin would marry during the series run and are still married today.)
The series was daring for its time in how it looked at aspects of the world most shows hadn’t tried before: other series would deal with marriages breaking up; few tried to deal with reconciliation. Nancy Weston’s (Wettig) struggles with breast cancer would be one of the most remarkable storylines in the history of television to that time, taking up most of an entire season. (The episode where she survived but friend Gary (Peter Horton) died in a hit and run ranked among TV Guides 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time in 2009.) And the series broke ground by being the first broadcast series to show two gay people in bed, a boundary that it would take TV nearly six more years to push further on.
The series was never a huge ratings hit but it was a major critical one: during the five year stretch between 1987–1991 thirtysomething would be the only series to defeat L.A. Law for Best Drama (in 1988). Mayron, Busfield and Wettig all won Emmys as well and the series remained a touchstone even after it was cancelled.
Herskovitz and Zwick would aim younger in their next two series. In 1994, they created what may very well be the most famous series that only ran a single season. If you were a teenager in the 1990s (or younger) you knew about My So-Called Life. Nearly thirty years after it aired, people are still bitter that ABC killed it after only one season. (They continued to show similar poor judgment for other series such as Murder One, Sports Night, and frankly far too many other series to mention.) Claire Danes shot to superstardom for her role as Angela, the teen at the center of the drama, and it is something of a travesty that she lost the Emmy to Kathy Baker that year. (The last ten years the Emmys have more than made up for it.) Delayed superstardom would eventually come to co-stars Jared Leto, who played Angela’s main crush and Wilson Vasquez, who became an idol to millions for playing the first gay teenager to have a regular role on a TV series of any kind. There have always been rumors that because Danes’ shot to stardom so quickly that she was considering leaving after the first season to pursue a movie career (which she did to middling results anyway) and that the creators unwilling to continue the series without her was as much responsible as the middling ratings the series got for ABC cancelling it in the spring of 1995.
Undaunted, Herskovitz and Zwick tried another series less than two years later called Relativity which may have been the closest in spirit to Once and Again. The series centers on two twenty-ish strangers who meet and fall in love on a trip to Italy (Kimberly Williams and David Conrad) and try to make the romance last when they return despite the opinions of their friends and families. This series was filled with future TV stars, including Jane Adams, Lisa Edelstein, Poppy Montgomery, Adam Goldberg and Richard Schiff. The series was known for pushing the boundaries of eroticism — which series like NYPD Blue had already fragmented — beyond the average. Some scenes, however, were a bridge too far. At one point halfway through the season, the writers wanted to show the two leads in the middle of a sex scene where Conrad proposed and Williams’ accepted — at the moment of orgasm. If the rumors are to be true, ABC was fine with showing the sex, but not the proposal, and the scene never aired. Relativity was cancelled after one season — the ratings were even lower than My So-Called Life and the reviews far less glowing. But all of the central characteristics of the series were in place for Once and Again.
In the summer of 1999 the networks were stunned by the success and the Emmy nominations for HBO’s The Sopranos. In hindsight, I have looked at their collective approach to the fall season as a declaration of war. They didn’t try to come up with a Sopranos knock-off (network TV wouldn’t be willing to go that far for at least another decade) but I think they viewed as a creative to try and blitz HBO out of existence with as many quality series as they could come up with, proving it to be a fluke. Whether it would’ve been possible to this is unlikely but the networks seemed to treat it as such, and as a result the 1999–2000 season featured some of the biggest hits and most critically acclaimed shows in TV history.
NBC came the closest to driving The Sopranos into a corner. The West Wing debuted that September, and for the next seven years the two series would battle to the death for almost every major Emmy. They also developed Law and Order: SVU — for better or worse the longest running drama in history — and Freaks and Geeks, a series nearly as beloved as My So-Called Life with, if anything, an even bigger cast and crew of future stars. Fox tried its hand at comedy with some very radical angry shows that would enjoy success. Their biggest smash would be Malcolm in the Middle, one of the most hysterical and dirtiest broadcast comedies to that point, and lesser success like Titus, a comedy series about one of the most dysfunctional families I’ve ever seen. CBS didn’t have as much success, but they tried with the brilliant sci-fi/comedy mashup Now and Again, a series whose cancellation I consider as mystifying as Freaks and Geeks. Even the relatively new WB got in the game with two of the most successful series in its history: Angel, the brilliant Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff, and Roswell, the teenager-alien series that had such a brilliant start that not even its monumental collapse among critics dimmed its glow among fans when it died two years later.
By contrast what would be ABC’s major contribution seemed more of a stopgap than anything else: its debut in September was initially meant to run for six weeks until NYPD Blue returned for its seventh season in late October. And really ABC had no reason to think Once and Again would be a ratings hit; none of Herskowitz and Zwick’s series had been one, and there was no big hook to drag viewers in.
Once and Again’s premise was deceptively simple: it was the story of Lily Manning (Sela Ward), a woman separated from her husband after his infidelity six months ago and Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell) a father of two, divorced after three years. Each of their children attends the same high school: they meet each other at a school function, and Rick asked Lily out.
The first season is about trying to find love when you’re forty and your kids are fundamentally blocking you. Before her first date with Rick, one of Lily’s children says: “Just don’t have sex with him” and she lets out a scream. The attraction is palpable between the two immediately, as well as the reality of their situation. At one point during dinner, Lily says to Rick: “I can’t imagine staying with someone who doesn’t love you,” and he says sadly: “ I can.” The kiss at the end of the meal is electric, and they go out the next day. They end of the couch in Lily’s house, and Grace catches them in a state of undress and is more mortified then her mother is.
The two of them continue to muddle through the relationship. In the final ten minutes of the second episode, they have sex for the first time in what is one of the most erotic scenes I’ve ever seen on television, certainly on broadcast TV. It’s not just the actual nakedness of the leads; it’s the emotional nakedness as the two of them deal with their insecurities. For all of the sexuality of broadcast television in the age of Shonda Rhimes, very few series — certainly none on broadcast television — have ever dealt with the real consequences of romanticism in this sense.
The trickiness of Lily and Rick’s relationship is complicated in every possible way. It’s not just the fact of the children on all sides; it’s the fact that for both of them the spouses are still in the picture. This is another work of genius by the two. It would have been too easy to make Jake just another womanizing rogue who thinks he can win his wife back with enough patience and Karen, a whiny harridan who has no use for her husband. Neither would be the case on Once and Again.
Jake (Jeffrey Nordling) is a womanizer, but he’s also a good father who truly loves his daughter and spends much of the first season, genuinely thinking he can win Lily back because he has been a good provider. (He manages her father’s restaurant, and there’s an underlying tension in the fact that her parents seem to prefer Jake’s judgment over Lily’s on most matters.) And Karen (Susanna Thompson) is difficult, but she has never been a bad mother or unpleasant in the aspects of her children. She’s not thrilled that her ex is seriously dating, but she accepts as part of moving on with life.
All four of the young actors playing the children were extraordinary in their word. Eli and Jesse, Rick’s children, were played by future television superstars Shane West and Evan Rachel Wood, both of whom gave extraordinary examples of the great work that was to come. But if I had a favorite of all of them at the time, it was Julia Whelan as Grace, the troubled eldest of Lily’s, who now finds herself dealing with the breakup of her parents marriage and the fact that she’s going to high school with he ‘future stepfathers’ son, who she had a crush on. Whelan’s work was some of the best I’ve ever seen a teenage performer give on a TV series, and I’m sad that she’s rarely acted after the show ended in 2002; she had the potential to be as great as Wood or West.
Indeed, even the peripheral characters were future celebrities: Judy, Lily’s younger sister who didn’t approve of the relationship at all, was played by Marin Hinkle who has dominated television for the last twenty years, finally landing another role of similar caliber on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Todd Field, a future Oscar nominated director and writer, played Rick’s partner on the first two seasons. (Field left the series in 2001 to direct In the Bedroom.) And the series would all bring back to light actors who had fallen out of the limelight: Patrick Dempsey had his first major role in a while as the emotionally disturbed brother of the Manning family, who spent much of his early life in an institution.
Once and Again success shocked everybody; it certainly caught ABC by surprise. It averaged more than fifteen million viewers in NYPD Blue’s time slot, leading them to push the latter’s premier to the winter of 2000. The ratings would remain high throughout the first season, even after it was moved to Mondays at 10 in January of 2000. And while it never received the recognition from award shows that The West Wing did, it was pretty competitive in its first season: it received three Golden Globe nominations (Campbell, Ward and the show itself) and Ward shocked many when she upset Edie Falco for Best Actress in a Drama in 2000.
I suppose this is the part where I discuss how it ended up collapsing, but the thing is that’s not quite what happened. Nor have I gone into full detail some of the reasons it was so outstanding for its entire run, and why it never has truly gone away. That I will do so in a follow-up to this piece later this week.